Opportunities to participate in a vertical tasting of a premier wine are rare, so I jumped at the invitation to participate in an 11-vintage retrospective of Chateau Figeac, a Premier Grand Cru Classe producer in St. Emilion, Bordeaux.
I was one of two dozen wine lovers who ponied up a modest $90 for a four-course dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House near Dupont Circle last month for a chance to meet Eric d’Aramon, owner, director and chief winemaker of Figeac. The bacchanal was organized by Panos Kakaviatos, a Bordeaux lover who writes for Decanter and several other magazines. The wines were donated by the chateau.
To be honest, this was the type of evening that gives wine geeks a bad name. There was much preening, with discussions of a wine’s faults and comparisons to other bottles tasted weeks before. And the wines are expensive — the 2009, the current vintage, retails for about $300. But this is what wine lovers enjoy most. For me, the evening was an ideal opportunity to get a sense of a famous chateau’s character and wines, and to forge a relationship, however fleeting, with the winery’s owner.
Figeac is not your typical St. Emilion. The appellation is on Bordeaux’s Right Bank, where merlot dominates the blend, but Figeac lies on a unique stretch of gravelly land (most of the area has clay soils) that favors cabernet sauvignon. For that reason, the wines are more structured and leaner than is typical for St. Emilion or nearby Pomerol. And although Figeac proudly bears St. Emilion’s highest classification, it has not traditionally been highly touted by certain taste-setting American wine critics.
D’Aramon did not address that critical slight directly, but he pointedly contrasted the Figeac style with the market preference for big, high-alcohol, fruit-forward wines.
“We never go beyond 13.5 percent alcohol, even in 2009 when everyone else went for 15 percent,” he said. “We want to preserve the freshness. Wine is made for drinking, and a wine that does not make me want to drink another has missed its point.” Many of today’s leading wines, he said, “are like massive blocks — the first sip and the last taste the same. This is boring to me.”
Wines are also made for aging — at least Figeac’s are, as the tasting demonstrated. We started with the 2006, then proceeded to the 2005, 2004, 2001 and 2000. These were very consistent, despite some vintage variation, in that they showed black fruit flavors characteristic of cabernet, with an appealing citrusy hint of orange peel.
D’Aramon confessed that the 2000, from a warm vintage, was a bit underripe (showing green pepper flavors) because he was worried that the grape sugar would get too high and decided to pick early. I rather liked the wine, which turned minty with food, while others preferred the 2001 although it was from a “lesser” or lighter vintage.
When participating in a vertical tasting, I like to look for the turning point, the age at which the wine begins to evolve noticeably into maturity. For Figeac at this tasting, that point was 1998. This vintage was still a little ungainly, but it was beginning to come together and settle down, like a teenager becoming an adult. The 1995 was even better, showing complexity and a lovely depth. As one taster said, “I dated the ’98, but I’m marrying the ’95.”
“The ’95 is proof of why we should age wine, because there is more to wine than fruitiness,” d’Aramon said.
The showstopper was the 1986 — fresh and lively, with mushroom, earth, leaves and mint — a complex and lovely wine. “This speaks not only to the tongue but also to the brain,” d’Aramon said. “Some wines have more flavor than the tongue can absorb.”
Which is why such evenings are worth the indulgence.